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September-October 2011 Selected Content

Building Your Home Library - Picture Books - Lisa Hartman

Back in the fall of 2010, The New York Times ran an article titled "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children." There seems to be a trend suggesting that parents, bowing to the pressures of increasingly rigorous standardized testing, are encouraging their youngsters to forego picture books in favor of more text-driven chapter books. Publishers, in turn, are following the market and releasing fewer titles in the genre. This is very dire news indeed and something must be said in defense of the format, one that is beneficial beyond measure.

When my children were younger, we spent hours in the library among the shelves overflowing with picture books. Each child was drawn to different styles and stories, but it was almost always the illustrations that provided the hook. These books got them excited about stories, images, and, ultimately, reading. For what are we doing if not reading when we follow a series of events in pictures? Think of graphic novels or comics, many of which are very sophisticated in their storytelling. An appreciation of art, of the visual world, is also nurtured through these books. My children became readers at different ages, in their own time, but they all devoured stacks of picture books long before they mastered the alphabet--and long after. These books mark the beginning of each child's love affair with reading, and I can't imagine a world without them. And so, to continue the Home Education Magazine series on "Building Your Home Library," I'm recommending a small sample of stellar examples from this rich and, I believe, necessary genre.

Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch
by Nancy Willard, illustrated by The Dillons (Trumpet Club, 1992)

This book is so gorgeous, so lushly and whimsically illustrated, it makes a perfect choice for the top of this list. The story is simple, told in rhymed verse, and is brought to glorious, nonsensical life with Diane and Leo Dillon's incredible, fanciful artwork, complete with sculptural frames. We follow Bosch's harried housekeeper as she tries to manage his crazy menagerie. It is a fantasy that grabs the attention, elicits giggles and awe, and may even lead to a curiosity about art history. My kids went on to learn about the real Bosch and study his own bizarre work. But first, they spent many enchanted hours with this book.

The Book That Jack Wrote
by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Dan Adel (Puffin, 1997)

If you like a bit of a wink in your children's stories, this may be your cup of tea. It is a somewhat twisted, surreal take on the classic House that Jack Built and leans heavily toward satire. The illustrations are paintings, complete with wood and gilt frames that lend the irreverent tone a moment of seriousness--just a moment, though, as the odd details within each frame immediately make themselves known. The repetition of the text lends itself to early readers, while the clever illustrations elevate the sophistication, making it a fun choice for all ages.

Saint George and the Dragon
by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 1990)

This adaptation of Spencer's The Faerie Queen is beautifully illustrated in a style suggestive of medieval illuminated manuscripts. The tale is longer and denser than many picture books (it will take some time to read aloud, in other words), but it is worth it. My children were rapt when this was the choice, and one son in particular read it many, many times over many years. It is a literate retelling of a classic, complete with the journey, the battle, the romance and the morals. This little book opens the door to English literature for young readers.

Make Way for Ducklings
by Robert McCloskey (Viking Press, 1941)

This charming, beloved story about a duck couple seeking the perfect home for their family in Boston is accompanied by lovely brown-toned charcoal illustrations. The urban landscape is captured precisely, as is action and sound--a boy on a bike, the tangle of traffic, the busy policeman--it all comes to life in a gently comic style. The text is simple, allowing the outsized illustrations to breathe life into the tale. Children of all ages love this simple story with a happy ending--and we could all use more of those. If you can, get the large hardback edition--a great format for the artwork. (Blueberries for Sal is another McCloskey classic worth your time.)

George Shrinks
by William Joyce (HarperCollins, 1987)

We all have wonderfully fond memories of this one, read aloud or alone. The premise is one that every kid will enjoy. George dreams that he is tiny and awakens to find it true. He then must tackle the list of chores left for him by his parents. Off he goes on a Lilliputian adventure, complete with a malevolent cat. His challenge will appeal to the shorter set, as they are daily confronted with an adult-sized world. The illustrations are broad and filled with primary colors--a perfect palette for this gently goofy tale. We own a very tiny edition, which we love, but there is a newer (2000) large format that really gives the artwork its due.

The Gardener
by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997)

This touching story of a girl in depression-era America who is sent from the farm to live and work with her uncle in a big city is one of my favorites. Like Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius, this lovely book captures a time and place sweetly and simply with large, charming illustrations, while suggesting that it is the mundane, daily acts of generosity and beauty that will save us all. Told through letters written by Lydia Grace to members of her family, we follow her journey and watch as she grows and brings hope to those around her. Baking, gardening and family anchor this sweet, timeless story. (This duo also gave us The Library, which is irresistible.)

Peter and the Wolf
by Sergei Prokofiev, retold by Loriot, illustrated by Joerg Mueller (Knopf, 1986)

This illustrated retelling of Prokofiev's classic musical fairy tale is gorgeous fun. Accompanied by the CD, children can see and hear each instrument and corresponding character. The images depict first the key members of the orchestra, then the stage, followed by a rendering of the story in its natural setting. At the end, we return to the orchestra and see the cast taking their curtain call. This is a lovely introduction to music, fairy tale, and the theater. The story is suspenseful as we follow willful, curious Peter beyond the safety of his yard, but ultimately triumphant as he saves everyone from the wolf. My kids can hear only a few notes and fondly recall which animal they represent. You can read the book aloud without the music, but it is a less satisfying experience, for sure.

King Bidgood's in the Bathtub
by Audrey Wood, illustrated by Don Wood (Harcourt Children's Books, 1985)

This husband and wife team has given us much to choose from (The Napping House and Heckedy Peg among them), but this is my favorite. The king is in the bathtub and, like a stubborn child, he won't get out. It is up to the members of his court to find a solution. The text is simple and humorous, while the illustrations are grand and gorgeous. Don Wood's beautiful, detailed oil paintings are the centerpiece of this raucous little book. The elaborate Elizabethan dress, the extravagant setting of the king's bath, and the exaggerated expressions on the faces of his frustrated servants all combine to make the story sing and dance on the page. All ages will find something to love in this book.

Bunny Cakes
by Rosemary Wells (Penguin Group, 1997)

Rosemary Wells is so prolific and entertaining, I'm shocked to find that she hasn't shown up on any of these lists yet. We love so many of her books, but our favorite characters are Max and Ruby. And our favorite Max and Ruby book (I think--it's a tough choice) is Bunny Cakes. Big sister Ruby and little brother Max are making cakes for their grandmother's birthday. Classic sibling conflict ensues, to adorable, hilarious effect. I won't give away the story, simple as it is, but the combination of Wells' sweet, colorful illustrations and her charming, familiar tale make this book a frequent request. We can all recite passages from memory, after all the readings over the years. (I hear that Max and Ruby have their own television series now, which breaks my bookish heart a bit. Just read the books.)

Are You My Mother?
by P.D. Eastman (Random House, 1960)

I was torn about including this one--it's not a personal favorite. But my kids have been so adamant about its inclusion, forcing me to reconsider. This sweet, simple, colorful little book has been a first read for many of us, along with Eastman's Go, Dog. Go! They both belong on the shelf next to Seuss and will be worn to pieces by young readers. All four of my kids point to these titles as very early, very fond memories, and I can see now how this one tickles the funny bone and prods the budding reader. Your little ones will love it.

Why only ten? There are thousands of worthy titles out there - it's impossible to narrow it. The classics--Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Or C.W. Anderson's Billy and Blaze and Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall and Barbara Cooney. What about Eric Carle, Jan Brett, Faith Ringgold, Thomas Locker, Tomie dePaola, Ezra Jack Keats, and Mercer Mayer? And all the picture books that landed on the previous three lists in this series--the depth of this genre is staggering. I've tried to show in this list the incredible range of style and complexity available within the format. Picture books provide children with a window into the reading life. They plant and nurture a love of art and provide many hours of entertainment. How could anyone question the value of such a thing? If you have small children in your life, go to the bookstore and buy a picture book--give a brilliant gift and support the authors and illustrators who need us now.

© 2011, Lisa Hartman


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